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Why Are CEOs Tall?

Ever hear someone say “People who are tall are more likely to become CEOs”? Something like 30% of CEOs are taller than 6’2″, versus 1% or so of Americans overall. The conventional wisdom says that taller people are put into authoritative positions by virtue of their height. Malcom Gladwell talked about this phenomenon in his book, Blink. But there’s a pretty obvious flaw in the argument.

Whenever you have a correlation like this in statistics, there are several possible cause-effect relationships. Either A caused B, B caused A, C caused both A and B or the correlation is a coincidence. In this case, I think we can safely rule out the CEO title causing the people to grow. And I also think we can rule out coincidence. But why does everyone automatically jump to the conclusion that tall CEOs got to be in that position just because they’re tall.

Some people have accepted the argument and rationalized it by saying that perhaps being tall made them better competitors or more domineering and leader-like and therefore better able to be CEO. I’ll leave that argument to them. It seems plausible enough, but I want to put forth another position: That being tall and being a CEO have a common cause.

Just as your environment shapes your way of thinking and personality, it can also shape you physically. In China, several of the locals I met used height and weight as indicators of social status: If you are taller and heavier, you are assumed to be of a higher social class. The difference in height comes from good nutrition, healthcare, access to food, and other things that don’t restrict your growth. If you are from a low status family, your growth may be hampered by lack of those things, and also possibly the toils of some manual labor.

The data seem to back up this theory. A study of middle-aged English men shows a 1-2 inch difference between the highest and lowest social classes. And the difference has been increasing since the 1920s. This difference doesn’t wipe out the disparity, but it certainly makes it much smaller. (NOTE: Several other studies seem to have found similar things but the research was gated and so I chose to use the single one above.)

So if we then substitute “from high status families” for “tall”, we get: People who are from high status families are more likely to become CEOs. Now this statement is something that would hardly surprise anyone. In fact, I’d say that this correlation is much stronger than that of height. So maybe there is something that makes taller men more likely to become a CEO, but I doubt it’s quite as big a deal as it seems – pun intended.